Job 14:7-15 | John 12:24
The opening chapters of Job, as we explored (in very small part) last week, are an argument; an argument about suffering, about sin and guilt, and most of all, about the goodness of God.
Not an argument about whether or not God is good: that much was assumed by all involved. No, the argument is about what God’s goodness means. Whether the goodness of God was ultimately the goodness of purity or, well, something else, something that those arguing did not even have a name for.
But it’s an argument that, as I suggested last week, is far from dead. In fact, I fear it is undergoing something of a resurgence. For the logic of purity is this: something is made pure by destroying or driving out or removing everything else; and it is kept pure by preventing anything dirty or impure from coming in.
It’s only a very small step from there to the theology of exclusion and purification: to the Church pastor who preached just a couple of weeks ago that the only tragedy in the Orlando nightclub shooting was that there weren’t more fatalities – for killing openly gay young adults becomes part of the purication of society; or to the killing by radical Islamist terrorist groups of anyone – Christian, Jew, Moslem, whatever – anyone who does not conform to their particular view of the purity of Islam.
The logic of purity is that of us and them; in and out; pure and impure. And it doesn’t seem to me, to put it mildly, to match up to the nature of God revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
This is not to say that God’s goodness is not, as Eliphaz’s name had it “pure gold”. But if our understanding of the purity of God’s goodness leads us to a place so clearly contrary to the life of Jesus, then that’s got to be a pretty strong hint that we’ve misread something about God.
Today’s reading is placed much later in the argument, and revolves around questions of despair and hope.
Job has confidence in both the justice and the goodness of God, and he has begun to wonder what that justice and goodness might look like in the real world in which good people suffer and evil often prospers. And like many who know true, inexplicable suffering, he is skirting the boundary between hope and despair, grasping for anything that might enable him to hold on to hope, to avoid sliding into the despair of giving up. His friends, with their one dimensional, simplistic answers, have been no help.
But he finds a hint in the nature of God’s creation.
‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant
I reckon Job would have really appreciated the Australian Bush. I can just imagine him looking out over the desolation of the aftermath of a bushfire, seeing those tiny green shoots of new life, and repeating his mediation – “there is hope for a tree”.
“But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?”
There is hope for a tree, Job complains? reflects? wonders?, there is hope for a tree, even when it is destroyed by the axe, by drought, by fire; there is hope for a tree – why not for a mortal like me?
The book of Job is an old story, and reflects a relatively early stage in the development of Hebrew theology. In particular, as this reading makes very clear, there was no sense, no expectation, of resurrection, of life beyond death. In contrast to the tree “…mortals lie down and do not rise again” is Job’s summary of the lot of humanity.
If only, Job cries, if only it were not so.
O that you would hide me in Sheol
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
Sheol – the place of the dead – is, in early Hebrew theology, the resting place of all mortals, regardless of whether they lived righteous lives or not. From Sheol, there is no return. Reunion, perhaps, with your ancestors, but not one of joy, just of empty silence; the Hades of Greek mythology or Arula of the Babylonians.
And perhaps Job’s author knows of those pagan myths, of Odysseus travelling into Hades seeking in vain to bring back his beloved Eurydice. Perhaps it is as simple as looking at the trees. Or perhaps something else has spurred his imagination to say “if only”. If only God would kill me: but appoint a time, and then remember me.
In the depths of despair, Job cannot voice hope for his future life; his future has been torn away from him. But the hope he can voice, the hope he can imagine, in that perhaps there is something further, something beyond.
Perhaps God might remember him.
Could there be hope beyond what meets the eye?
And just as last week, the question raised by the author of the book of Job is not one for which he has an answer. A hope, but not an answer. And just as last week, it is a theme, a question, a hope, picked up in the life and ministry of Jesus.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus’ response to the despair of those who face death, who face insurmountable opposition, who face the collapse of their dreams, who face the crumbling of the things that they held dear, is not an answer. At least not in the sense of an explanation that makes sense, clearly and unambiguously resolves the philosophical issue at hand.
It’s not an answer – but it is a statement of hope and of faith.
Job looked at the way trees could regrow, and imagined that it might be possible for there to be something else beyond tragedy; another life, like for like.
But the image Jesus offers is far more extravagant even than that. Forget regrowing as you were before; the seed that dies does not just produce a single grain. It reproduces manyfold.
The best Job could hope for was that he might get back a life like the one he had before. But in the sequel that is the New Testament, and the invitation that is the Kingdom of God, the hope is not that of restoration, but of multiplication.
That is the hope we celebrate today, as we remember, in this shared meal of thanksgiving, the one who died and was not forgotten, who went before us, and made real this future that Job could only begin to imagine.